There was a crowd outside. More accurately, there was a mob outside. But that was nothing new. The Stanton Clinic had grown a permanent skin of picket lines and protest signs, a snug little blanket of eggs (the irony) and death threats (ditto). For all the nuisance that they caused him, Stanton couldn’t help but pity the assembled opponents of his enterprise. They were pouring an awful lot of themselves into their efforts, and they weren’t going to see much return on that investment. Even their detrimental effect on staff morale had lost its edge. The intimidation was a factor, certainly, but that began to change after the first few months of no actual assassinations being carried out. The fear was increasingly replaced by righteousness, by a sense of virtue in continuing with one’s work in spite of the urban barbarians at the gates. Some of the technicians were now comparing the business to the other great, trailblazing victims of intellectual history, fancying themselves the modern-day counterparts to Galileo or Socrates. Stanton found the comparison asinine, but was more than happy to encourage it if it served as an aide to productivity.
No, the crowds outside had ceased to be a cause of concern. They would either fade in time, or a major incident would justify a more proactive approach to their removal. Rather, he and doctor Lindgren were facing a fresh hurdle. The pair sat across a conference table from their first dissatisfied customers. Mr and Mrs Fassburg were here, he strongly suspected, to attempt to coerce a financial settlement from him. Mrs Fassburg drummed her fingers impatiently over the glass tabletop. Her husband wore a face that looked like it was attempting to retreat into itself. It seemed that she would be doing the talking. Between the two parties was the product at question – the two-month old Philip Fassburg. He had been administered with a light sedative following a unanimous agreement that, although the child’s presence was necessary, his consciousness would probably be detrimental to proceedings.
Stanton had the case file. Lindgren had just received the test results. She was sitting with her left index finger over the top-right hand corner of the document. That was their ‘all-clear’ signal for situations like this. Either they weren’t at fault, or there was nothing in the baby’s samples to prove that they were. In all honesty, Lindgren would probably have been able to jargon these two into oblivion if the situation called for it. As far as he knew, and he was confident in the knowledge, this was a strictly no-lawyers, off-the-record affair. If the Fassburgs could afford decent legal counsel, they would have brought someone, and if they were undercover journalists, they would have to be miraculously good actors as well. It seemed that he was in the clear, whatever the complaint was. Even if he wasn’t, it was a bad idea to consider the possibility now.
“Well.” He said. “Let’s begin. Mrs Fassburg, I take it you have an issue with an aspect of the service we provided to you and your husband?”
“Yes. Yes I do.” There was a faint waver in her voice. Either genuine distress, or just nerves. “We do, I mean.”
“OK.” He said, slowly and evenly, as he might address a child or a pet, if he had any. This was a fresh venture, but customers are the same wherever you go. He had developed a number of robust approaches to their handling. “Could you walk me through it?”
“Could I walk you through it?” She replied, forming the beginnings of what was almost certainly a crocodile tear. “Could I walk you through it? Look at him! Look at what you did to my son!” The tear dropped. A nice touch, assuming it was ingenuine.
At this point, all present realised that, having placed the young Philip equidistantly between the two sides, he was out of reach now that they had taken their seats. With an awkward sigh, Stanton half-stood, leaned over, and dragged the crib over to his end of the table.
“What a beautiful baby boy.” He said, laughing internally at the obvious, shameless conceit of the remark. “You should both be very proud.”
“Well we’re…” She stopped herself, presumably before the word ‘not’. “Never mind. Just look at his feet. He’s disfigured!”
Stanton began reaching his hands into the crib, but thought better of it. Better to have the professional take care of this part. Besides, babies made him uncomfortable. He found them to be warm and squishy in ways that did not seem entirely human.
“Doctor Lindgren? Could you…”
Lindgren nodded, and slowly pulled the crib over to her seat. With this done, she hoisted Philip out at a speed that showed supreme confidence in her sedative, and peeled his socks off. The toes were fused together, in a fashion that he would describe as ‘gruesome’, were he feeling uncharacteristically candid that day. He resisted the urge to vocalise his displeasure at the sight. Lindgren moved in for a closer inspection, a quizzical look on her face.
“We paid you and your… your ghoulish little business because you promised us a perfect baby. You said that you could make sure nothing was wrong with him, and… well, you know we wanted to do it naturally, but…”
“You were worried about a history of autism in your husband’s side of the family, and you knew from prior screening that you were a carrier for cystic fibrosis.”
“Yes, and that’s very noble of you, If I may say so. It’s cases just like yours that made me want to put my funds into this industry. Let’s see… I have the initial interviews here, along with your specification. In addition to our standard preventative package, I note that you dipped into the cosmetics as well.”
“Yes, well. In for a penny…”
“…in for an additional few thousand pounds. I understand. Look, I admire your commitment to giving young Philip here the best life you could, right from the beginning. And I’m not going to say that blue eyes and blonde hair aren’t a part of that. If I believed that, we wouldn’t offer the service. So please take me at my word when I say that I am heartbroken to see that your efforts have met with this stroke of bad luck.”
“A stroke of bad luck! My son is going to have to spend his life as a freak because of you and this… this scam that you’re running!”
“Mrs Fassburg, please. If we can be calm and think about this for a second, you’ll see that we…”
“You’ll see that our process successfully delivered every element of the specification.” Lindgren had decided that it was her turn. Fair enough. Stanton himself knew almost nothing about how their process actually worked, and so was a sitting duck in the event of any questioning. Lindgren, with her obvious authority on the matter, probably wasn’t even going to have to field any. “Today’s screening confirms that the boy is free of any genetic disorder in our testing battery. My eyes confirm that the genetically implausible cosmetic elements have also been achieved.”
“What are you saying? How can you be saying that you did your job? Look at him!”
Mrs Fassburg paused for a breather, managing to generate another tear in the process. Her husband placed a supportive hand on her shoulder. Stanton was not convinced.
“I am saying that the defect did not occur within the scope of our procedure. This must have been a developmental issue, during gestation. Perhaps just bad luck, perhaps something to do with the womb environment, or diet, or substance intake. That sort of thing.”
“You’re blaming me? You are actually blaming me? Oh, I’m sure the press will be very interested to hear about that.”
“Well, to the extent that blame is relevant to the situation, I would say that…”
Stanton panicked for a split second, and then jumped in.
“…that the blame doesn’t fall anywhere. But that it certainly doesn’t fall with us.”
Good save. Mrs Fassburg stared daggers into the pair of them. Mr Fassburg stared far, far into a distant nothingness.
“May I have my son back?” She growled.
This time, he was able to slide the crib back across the table in one smooth motion. It felt strangely satisfying, in a tactile sort of way.
“Look, Mr Stanton, Doctor. All I’m saying is that me and my husband are at the very least entitled to a full refund. At the end of the day, what we got just isn’t what we paid for. And believe me, we really went out on a limb to make the payment. To try and make sure that our child would be healthy. We want a refund, and we want some sort of compensation for all the distress you’ve caused us.”
“And I do feel for you, I do. But our service is embryonic screening and modification. That’s what you paid for. And our tests demonstrate beyond any doubt that this service was adequately rendered.”
“Perfectly rendered.” Added Lindgren.
“Well, would that stand up in court?” She asked, with a hint of menace. Stanton thought to himself that it would soon be time to change gears from ‘patronising’ to ‘threatening’.
“I would stake my professional reputation on it.” Replied Lindgren, unfazed.
“Fine. Then we’re going to the press. I’ve seen the crowds. You’ve got a target on your head, and I’ve got a bullet.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t advise that.” Said Stanton, gear change in progress. “We’re prepared for hate. Been dealing with it since day one. You, on the other hand… well, you’re not going to come out of this smelling like roses if you want to start flinging shit.”
“And how’s that?”
“Firstly, you came to us in the first place. That lot out there aren’t going to forgive you just because you’ve got ammunition for them. They’ll take what you’ve got to give, but they’ll still be slashing your tires and spamming your Twitter, mark my words.”
“Secondly, we have solid evidence that Philip’s feet aren’t a result of our process.” Lindgren had observed the change in mood, and seemed more than happy to follow suit. “Moreover, we’ll be happy to point out that we have a staff of in-house, professional surrogates, whose services we offer free of charge to all clients at your purchase level. We do this precisely because it massively reduces the instance of congenital anomalies such as Philip’s. This is because the development can occur in a controlled, monitored environment, completely free from deleterious factors…”
“… such as cigarette smoke, alcohol, substance abuse, dietary imbalance, impacts, other physical stress, or, God forbid, traces of anything that could be perceived as a deliberate attempt to engender a malformity in the hopes, say, of strong-arming a settlement from us.”
“We would of course be loudly, obstinately insistent on a blood test from you in the event that this story reached the general media. It would be vitally important to us as an organisation and to me as a scientist that we spare no effort in getting to the bottom of this tragedy.”
“How dare you!” Snarled Mrs Fassburg. Mr Fassburg nodded in approval. “Not only do you threaten me, but now you’re saying that I… that I could even possibly have deliberately done this to my poor Phillip?”
“Look.” Now was the time to dial back down to ‘conciliatory’ and polish this business off. “I didn’t mean to imply that. And I’m not saying that you mishandled your pregnancy. Well, not any more than any ordinary person does. All I’m saying is that nobody here wants to get into this. You know it. We know it. You’re not getting anything from us beside what you already have. And that’s a son. A blue-eyed, blonde-haired son with impeccable genes and some unfortunately misshapen feet. Maybe by the time he’s ready for school you’ll have enough in the bank to get that ironed out, maybe not. Either way, you’ve got something worth a lot there. You should be happy about that, for his sake and yours.”
That seemed to do the trick. There was a series of awkward, angry glances across the table, and some half-hearted promises of continued pressure. Well, he’d heard plenty of those in his time, and had not once regretted the decision to ignore them. Security could see them safely to their car.
“I think that went well.” Said Lindgren. “But it was quite frustrating. You can deal with the public on your own from now on.”
“Oh, you get used to it. I don’t know how things go in your world, but in mine, people are pretty much all talk. The key is not to take it at all seriously, and just hit the right notes at the right times. Like a really half-assed piano recital.”
It was at that point that a brick crashed through the window, passing within an inch of Stanton’s head before landing violently on the table. Trailing from it was a banner bearing the word ‘abomination’. He sprang out of his chair in shock, then stifled a tirade. Lindgren seemed amused.
“I suppose that’s a kind of talk. Lunch?”
“Rain check. I’ve got meetings. Something about a government contract…”